‘I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English Literature, which it is my business to know about, and try to examine the fundamentals, the basic tools.’ As he turns to literature, he shelves the old-buffer prejudices and begins to display instead the rationalism which spoke habitually of the ‘basic tools’ of imagination, and the sensitivity to language which enabled him to examine and test those tools. This is Empson the technocrat, the man who insisted that there is always room for a great deal of exposition, ‘in which the business of the critic is simply to show how the machine is meant to work, and therefore to show all its working parts in turn’. To know about imagination means to insist that it is a machine rather than a mystery, and to insist on demonstrating how the machine works. Such is the temperament precociously active in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and still volatile in Using biography (1984). The pieces collected here provide a fascinating context for, but do not in any way extend, the preoccupations of the major books. Their importance may rather be that they make it hard to distinguish between the two Empsons, the white-coated technocrat and the plain man costumed in tweedy prejudices. They suggest that, far from shelving his prejudices when he turned to literature, Empson used those prejudices to colour his arguments.
Empson felt that history had made him an old buffer. ‘As I spent some time teaching in the Far East, and left England in 1931,’ he wrote in 1966, ‘the literary tastes of the Twenties are still encapsulated within me; and I was startled on coming home in the Fifties to find what was being taught as a routine.’ The new routine which confronted him on his return to England was a ‘religious bias’ which sought to re-appropriate texts rediscovered and liberated during the Twenties. Thus, the poetry of Donne, which had been considered ‘defiant, though evasively so, against the authorities of both Church and State’, was now being reclaimed for orthodoxy. Donne, T.S. Eliot maintained, was no sceptic. Empson saw the techniques of close reading he had pioneered turned to new and deplorable uses. His secularism seemed out-of-date, bufferish. And yet it was precisely this sense of marginality which provided the rhetorical impetus for his later polemics, his assault on religious bias. He represented his most radical opinions as old-buffer prejudices. ‘I am such an old academic that I agree with Blake and Shelley ... I think that the main points which have been found bad about Paradise Lost are precisely what made it so good, because they amount to a profound analysis of what is fundamentally wrong with the Christian God.’
Empson (like Eliot, like Larkin) fashioned for himself a buffer persona, and equipped it with a repertoire of archaic slang. On one occasion, he intervened in a ‘small controversy’ about the wit of Marvell’s ‘Garden’ to suggest why the poet might have thought Appleton House a sanctuary. ‘He had been directed into a very quiet staff job with frightfully useful contacts; and it wasn’t his fault, though he knew he ought to be fighting the King. You understand, I am puzzling about what was at the back of his mind when he wrote these few extremely magical poems.’ The insistence that even the most magical of poems is susceptible to rational analysis sits quite comfortably with an unanalysed taste for crusty military traditions. A review of books about the most ‘magical’ of modern poets, W.B. Yeats, concludes with the distinctly crusty remark that one of them contains ‘the only photograph of Maud Gonne which has ever made me understand how she could have been considered beautiful. On the reverse is a photograph of Constance Gore-Booth, also rippingly thrilling and like a rat-trap. The basic fact about Yeats, it does emerge, is that he had terrific pluck.’
Empson showed much curiosity not only about the rippingly thrilling, but also about thrillingly ripping, especially as promoted by Swinburne’s poems.
Swinburne cannot set out to describe passion felt between ordinary lovers (historical personages for instance) without dragging in the tortures that they inflicted on each other:
By the lips intertwisted and bitten
Till the foam has a savour of blood
is the centre of his invocation of the Queen of Passion. Of course it is not the perversion as such which one cocks one’s eye at. If they both like it (and many couples do like a reasonable amount of biting) they are only giving each other a nice time. The question is rather what they think radically nice; whatever the means, what is the end.
Empson had always admired Swinburne’s poems, and was not going to be deterred by mere foam and blood. He remains defiantly broadminded about sexual perversion. Yet an idiom which speaks of a ‘reasonable amount’ of biting or a ‘nice time’ is clearly inadequate to the task of comprehending the pleasure achieved through pain. It soon descends to a benevolent prurience. ‘How do Swinburne’s biters get to sleep? No doubt if they both enjoyed it they can go to sleep not only satisfied but proud; feeling, “My word, I’ve given this girl a good time – she’s almost bitten to rags” and so forth.’ It’s an appealing idea: the Sadean athlete as Bulldog Drummond impersonator. Indeed, Empson’s speculations about sex sometimes seem to owe more to Sapper or Buchan than they do to Freud. D.H. Lawrence is reproved for squeamishly supposing that Lady Ottoline’s cervix was sharp enough to lacerate him. ‘Now, if this had been physically true, any man capable of blowing his own nose and fond of the woman could have handled it, I suggest, by wearing plasticine under a French letter.’
The remarks about Swinburne date from 1931. Empson displayed bufferish tendencies at the very beginning of his career, although he didn’t elaborate them into a strategy until his return to England in 1951. Bufferdom was not some kind of sclerosis which overtook him, hardening scepticism into prejudice. It was rather an intellectual principle, a refusal to conceal his own fallibility. That principle survives because it evolved a style, a subtle and endlessly productive form of self-revelation. Argufying is a book of wonderful sentences rather than wonderful arguments. The sentences are wonderful because they are so unflustered, so undesigning, so remote from any intention to be wonderful. Their most characteristic gesture is the semi-colon, a portable caesura which allows Empson to pause for anticipation and renewal rather than completion. When he reviewed Forster’s Aspects of the Novel in 1927, one old buffer (aged 21) spoke forcefully but gently to another (aged 47): ‘Within the clearly stated limitations of his treatment, and the commonsense limitations of his sympathy, his judgment is excellent and his critical criteria most handy; you feel you want to apply them to things at once.’ As so often in Empson’s sentences, the semi-colon rounds off a judicious and rather impersonal summary, but leaves room for a more personal, less guarded supplement. The change of perspective and tone is part of the method. It ensures that the reviewer’s prejudices will not harden into laws; the momentum of the sentences he hands down will always carry him towards self-revelation.
This use of semi-colons exemplifies Empson’s belief that ideas are created and developed through dialogue. ‘Controversy demands imagination; you must try to understand your opponent’s position, so that you can select the things worth talking about; so that you can find the root of his errors, or of your disagreement with him.’ Many of the pieces collected here display that kind of imagination. They take issue indefatigably, responding to attacks, refuting errors. Critical judgment becomes a debate conducted with others or, failing that, with oneself. ‘A literary critic must be prepared to say, “This is good, though I don’t know why; not yet any-how”; indeed his more formative decision are nearly always like that.’
Empson’s style was part of his disagreement with academic criticism, as his reaction to one challenge makes clear.
Then he said, ‘How do you manage to get it as loose as that? Do you dictate it?’ I explained I used beer, but that when I saw the stuff in print (I had to admit) it shocked my eye as much as it did his. He was very friendly, you understand. One thing is, I have to read so much Mandarin English Prose now, especially in literary criticism, and am so accustomed to being shocked by its emptiness, that I feel I must do otherwise at all costs.
The looseness of the prose corresponds to the looseness of a buffer who doesn’t mind admitting he’s a buffer. Empson believed that true rigour requires a certain looseness, a recognition of fallibility. To turn from him to other critics is to see, perhaps for the first time, just how defensive some of them are: sententious, self-absorbed, frightened to leave the shelter of the pack. In this respect, it’s not surprising that he should have felt as little sympathy for the literary theorists who had begun to establish themselves towards the end of his life, and with whom he has sometimes been aligned, as he did for the moralists who confronted him on his return to England. Theory, after all, has made it possible for a lot of old buffers to reappear in the world as young buffers; they are not likely to jeopardise their rejuvenations by behaving loosely.
Empson thought one of the most attractive features of Buddhism was its ‘coolness ... towards Heaven’. ‘Also we are told there was a minor god who became interested in philosophy, and one of his questions was so difficult that he was referred up and up in the hierarchy (it is always thought of as like a government department) till he was asking it of the Supreme God, who was rather embarrassed but quite plucky about this, so he waved his hand and the clouds gradually rolled back till at last, infinitely far below, the divine eyes could pick out the Buddha, crosslegged under a bo-tree. “I can tell you who knows the answer,” said the Supreme God: “it’s That Man, down there.” ’ Empson himself knew some answers the academic gods didn’t, and still don’t.